Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

Editorials, Rants

Why Martin Scorsese is Right About Marvel Movies

Acclaimed director, Martin Scorsese

Acclaimed director, Martin Scorsese

As you probably have heard by now, after being asked what he thought about Marvel movies, Martin Scorsese said they were nothing more than theme parks and therefore “not cinema.” Social media and the blogosphere–being what they are–exploded, raging that he was nothing more than an elitist who simply didn’t appreciate the brilliance that is the comic book film–or, as I call them, man baby movies

Well, you know what? Not only do I think that Scorsese was 100% right, I can hazard a guess as to why he felt the need to dismiss these types of movies as theme parks and “not cinema”. However, before I do, I’m going to first talk about how the craft of filmmaking has gone down a steep trajectory over the past two decades.

What Does it Mean for a Movie to Be Cinematic?

Many people think that making a movie just boils down to shooting it on film and getting it released on the big screen. So, when someone like Martin Scorsese comes along and says something like, “This particular type of movie isn’t cinema,” they get angry. They rant and rave in so many words, “How dare you, you elitist piece of crap? It was shot with a film camera and theatrically released, so why is it any less cinematic than any other movie that was shot and released in the same way?”

However, believe it or not, there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to this question. To find out what the answer is, we have to explore a problem that’s becoming all too frequent nowadays in movies, one that you’ve undoubtedly experienced. That problem is this:

Have you ever watched a movie at the theater and left feeling as if you hadn’t really seen a movie? Especially if it was a big budget movie that should’ve left you feeling the very opposite? I’m not talking about the experience of having seen a bad movie and walking away feeling underwhelmed. I’m talking about this sensation of feeling as if the movie you saw wasn’t “movie enough” to be shown in a theater. Your first thought was, “Man, that felt like a Lifetime cable movie,” or, “This could’ve been released on Netflix,” or, “That felt like a video game,” or, “That felt like an SNL skit dragged out for an hour and a half.”

A movie in that vein for me was Cop and a Half (1993). As soon as it ended, I felt ripped off. It wasn’t because it was an insufferably bad movie. It’s because it felt as if I had spent eight bucks to watch the type of shitty made-for-TV movie that used to air on network television for free.

Another movie like this for me was Freejack (1992). Again, what made it feel like a rip off had nothing to do with it being absolutely terrible in every way. It had to do with the execution. Something about it felt like it could’ve just as well been released on TV or straight-to-video. 

When people are hit with this “didn’t-feel-like-a-movie” experience, they often try to explain it by blaming something technical, as in, “There was too much CGI,” or, “The writing was bad,” or, “The acting was terrible.” But that feeling they come away with has nothing to do with anything technical. It has to do with something else. Let’s explore what that something else is by explaining what makes a movie a bona-fide movie.

Contrary to popular belief, movies are more than simply technical format and means of distribution (as in, shot on film or digital in a specific aspect ratio, edited to movie length and released in movie theaters). There’s also the specific way that movies are supposed to feel that makes them distinctive from a TV movie, video game, straight-to-video or other type of medium–a feeling that makes going to see a film worth the price of admission. The way the shots are set up are different. The atmosphere and cinematography are different. The editing is different. The music is different. The concepts, themes and stories are grander. The visual language and manner of storytelling are more sophisticated.

Everything is just…different, from the artistry and editing, to the stories and characters. This difference is what most people refer to as “cinematic,” as in there’s a particular quality that makes something feel movie-like, as opposed to feeling like a video game, made-for-TV movie or a straight-to-streaming online exclusive.

Just to show you what I mean, here is a still of a man walking up to the front door of a house at night. Look at the atmospheric lighting and the film noirish setting (particularly the silhouette of the figure in the foreground):

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Would you ever confuse that shot for a TV movie? A video game? A straight-to-DVD or online streaming network exclusive? No. Why? Because it’s too atmospheric and stylistically shot to be any of those. Only in a movie would you have a shot this artistic and meticulously lit for such a straightforward scene of a man about to enter a house.

Here is another screenshot, of a couple standing in front of a large window staring out at a cityscape:

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Again–would you confuse this for a video game, TV movie, music video, or straight-to-video movie? Of course not. Because, once again, it’s too atmospheric and stylish to be any of these things. But also, look at what the couple is wearing. In spite of the man and woman each wearing a completely different outfit, the movie makes a point of having their separate articles of clothing mirror each other in silhouette. His shoes and socks look like her boots. Her coat is shaped like his coat and is nearly the same length. Would a TV show make the effort to do something this subtle? I don’t think so.

Let’s try another screenshot. How do you know this scene below is from a movie and not a TV show? 

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You can tell it’s from a movie, because of the unusual angle of the shot. TV shows and other mediums don’t usually go out of their way to create shots from this particular angle. Also, there is a very subtle compositional technique here known as “line of sight”, where your eye is forced to immediately look towards the house, because the young woman is turned and looking towards its direction. 

Here is an animated gif. How do you know this is from a movie and not a TV show? (Just play along if you recognize the scene.) What is it about a guy whipping his hat around while riding a nuke that tells you which medium it’s from?

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A cowboy riding a gigantic nuke hootin’ and hollerin’ as he falls to his doom? It’s just too over the top a scene for a TV show. Also, the special effects are better than something you would’ve seen on any show at the time.

Here we go with another screenshot. How do you know this is a movie and not a TV show? (Play along if you recognize where this is from.)

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You can tell this is from a movie, because there’s a level of spectacle here that you wouldn’t see in a TV movie or otherwise. 

Here is one last screenshot. Is this from a vintage black and white television drama or film noir? (Again, play along if you recognize the actress.)

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You know it’s a from a 1940s film noir because a TV show wouldn’t get this creative with light and shadow, especially in terms of window blinds casting a pattern onto the set and actress. 

Bottom line, there’s something about movies that makes them a step above other types of mediums so that when you see them, you get a much fuller, richer experience watching them than you would watching something else. This doesn’t mean that the movie will always be automatically better than, say, a really good TV movie or video game. What it means is that just from the experience of a viewer, you will have felt that you at least saw a movie, regardless of how bad it was.

Case in point: Tank Girl (1995) is a pretty damn bad movie. But if you look at the cinematography, costume and set design, you can see that it’s still a step above what you would see in a straight-to-video production or TV show. That is to say, you may come away from the movie going, “What the hell kind of abomination is this?” but you’d never come away from it feeling, “Was that a movie I just watched? It sure as hell didn’t feel like one.”

Tank Girl (1995)

Tank Girl (1995). It might be a bad movie, but it was a movie, nevertheless

3 Comments

  1. ary

    Agreed entirely. But I have to ask, and since I am but a film noob so no condescension intended, why does Joker not qualify as cinema? It’s could be a copy for sure but how is it a padded MINO? The point is sure it looks exactly like Taxi Driver but that means it’s at best an eyesore for experienced film viewers but how is it “padded”?

    I hope you get my point, writing wise it’s trash for sure.

    • Comment by post author

      Regarding Joker, it’s not that all MINOs are padded. Padding is a characteristic of MINOs, but a movie can be a MINO without being padded.

      For example, I talked about Disney’s Star Wars. These movies aren’t padded at all, but they’re MINOs because they’re shot and blocked like a TV series, and the storytelling played out like a children’s animated series, not a sweeping epic. The storytelling and direction, in other words, didn’t have the epic quality that separates cinema from a television show.

      It’s the same with Joker. It’s not that it was padded, but that the subject matter and story were not worthy of cinematic treatment. The fact that the Joker’s backstory wasn’t good enough to be made into a movie is why the film tried so hard to remind audiences of Scorsese’s works. Some are calling it homage, but it’s not so much homage as it is a self-consciousness that the story wasn’t really “movie” material.

    • Comment by post author

      I forgot to add one more thing: another reason why Joker is a MINO goes back to something that Martin Scorsese said when he complained about Marvel movies being “product”.

      Movies are a passion project. In other words, filmmakers shoot because they are driven by a creative vision, want to flex their creative muscles or want to do their part to change moviemaking for the better.

      “Joker” was not a passion project. It was both a cynical cash grab trying to capitalize on the “dark and gritty” comic book phenomenon, as well as a cynical attempt to give one of the most childish genres of all time–the comic book superhero–prestige. There was no personal vision in this movie, no real interest in the storyline or characters. It was a product.

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